February 13, 2006
WARM CARDS - White Balancing System
Review by Bob Gladden and Steve Douglas
Anyone who uses a digital camera, being it a still camera or a video camcorder will want to set his/her white balance. Often much time is spent setting up a shot, trying to achieve that "special signature look" that is either characteristic of our style of shooting or desired by the client. Sometimes we use filters, special lights, and mattes or a combination of these to try and get an image with a special feel. One thing that will truly affect every shot is the setting of the white balance.
Light changes frequently; from bright sun to shade, our eyes adjust automatically, but the digital cameras and camcorders that we use, whether they have CCD's or CMOS chips in them, don't make these adjustments quite so efficaciously. They need a reference point. Thus they use a white balance setting to achieve this. Almost all digital camcorders have Automatic White Balance (AWB) and most have a Manual White Balance setting as well.
In Automatic White Balance mode your camera looks at the overall image and calculates the best white balance setting. While the automatic white balance mode often works pretty well, it can make mistakes. These errors may sometimes be repaired during color correction in post but it is best to avoid the problem in the first place. "White color" is a combination of all colors put together. White balance needs to be changed manually to obtain optimum color and results.
To find out how well your camera works in AWB mode, set your camera to its AWB setting and take some photos/video of the same subject under different lighting conditions. Study your results. Compare them to the same shots where you have manually white balanced before taking the shot. If your results using the AWB are within a range you feel comfortable with, than use the AWB for that situation. However, I am confident that you will see a marked improvement in the color saturation and hue in clips shot with a manual white balance setting. White balance may be the key to every shot, and having a consistent white balance is the key to bringing a consistent look to your sequence or film. Relying on the "auto white balance" in every situation, and in changing conditions may be a mistake. The auto white balance in the camera is a default setting and does not take into account the different lighting conditions - outdoors to indoors, bright sun to shade, lighting from different angles and from a variety of light sources such as fluorescent, tungsten and a host of other types. While it may work just fine in certain circumstances, Auto white balance has a tendency to wash out and remove depth from the colors. Setting the white balance manually, and setting it consistently tells the camcorder how to set other colors based on that WHITE reference. Resetting your white balance in changing conditions and locations with the same white reference allows you keep the same desired appearance throughout your production.
Most cameramen love the warm, beautiful images, which film gives to a production. Video is not film. Digital video cameras provide images that seem to be somewhat harsher and cooler than what our eyes perceive. To get those colors back, we trick the camcorder into accepting a white balance that provides for better coloration. Using a white card is a common way to set your white balance. But is your white balance set the same every time you set it? If you use the same card each time, than yes, your white balance will be consistent. But if you don't than your white balance will vary with the different white cards/papers (shades of white), or whatever it is that you may be using. This in turn will affect the coloration of your images. The standard white of a white balance card should be 100 IRE. This is the standard used in the photographic/film/video industry for white.
Warm Cards are an easy way to provide a warming, more natural look to your productions. The beautifully crafted cards come packaged in a sturdy leatherette zippered pouch for protection and carrying, and include 3 full-size 6" X 10" cards of different grades or strengths and 3 pocket size 3"X4" mini-cards in matching grades. Each card, additionally, has markings for use with both 16X9 and 4X3 aspect ratios. All the cards are waterproof, sturdy and held up very well in the field. In the case of this review that meant underwater where all kinds of salt and other elements could have destroyed a card of lesser quality manufacturing. Each Warm card has a nicely matted finish to avoid unwanted reflections while white balancing and is grommeted for easy organization and carrying.
The Warm Cards, in their "Standard Pack" come in three different levels of light blue. (Warm 1, Warm 2, Warm 3.) Pure white light (sunlight, 6000K°) gives everything a bluish cast. That is why there are different levels of Warm Cards. Depending on the conditions you are shooting in and the look you are trying to achieve, one of these cards will provide you with what you want. Just imagine that you are shooting an interview on a tropical island. It is a beautiful, cloudless day, the sun shining bright and harsh overhead. In this case you may want to use a Warm #3 card to set your white balance with. This will counter the bright harshness, providing more natural looking skin tones to your subject.
There is also an optional "Plus Pack" that comes with two other cards, (Warm 1/2 and Minus Green). These cards are of the same high quality as the others but add a greater arsenal to your white balancing abilities. The Warm minus card is one half the level of the Warm 1 card; the Minus Green card is for shooting under fluorescent lighting, eliminating the greenish cast that cameras often capture without it.
Warm Card 2
Warm Card 3
Using Warm Cards will give you the consistency between shots, between locations (both indoors and outdoors), and when using multiple cameras. Warm Cards are all standardized (they all have the same shade / level of blue on every set of cards); therefore you can always be confident that you have balanced each shot correctly.
Warm Cards are not white, but levels or grades of light blue. When a camcorder sees a light blue color and you set your white balance to it, it shifts the colors to a warmer range. The camcorder sees the light blue color as "white", eliminating that shade of blue and shifting the whole range of colors making them warmer. In addition, having consistency of white balance makes it much easier to match shots in postproduction, where you will do far less color correcting. This, in turn, is a big asset if you are on a tight time line for the finished production.
I use my Warm Cards on my underwater productions. They produce a more realistic image. As soon as you go below the surface the light changes and you start to lose colors (mostly in the red range). Light and color is absorbed with increasing depth. Using Warm Cards gave me a more consistent white balance even when used with underwater lights. The Warm colors have definitely helped to bring out the colors of the fish and the skin tones of the divers. They simply looked more natural, avoiding that washed out appearance I sometimes notice when shooting underwater. However, underwater, your white balance needs to be reset every time you change depth or whenever the lighting conditions change. The important thing is that Warm Cards really did the job and held up to a greater stress than most shooters normally would have ever applied to them.
Warm Cards were very easy to use. You just hold the card you have chosen in front of the camera, zoom in until the card fills the screen and set your white balance. When conditions change, or you change locations or lighting just reset your white balance again with the same card and start shooting.
After you have tried everything else to get your white balance the way you want you will be more than happy with your purchase of Warm Cards. They are inexpensive, durable and will help you to achieve what you and your clients expect from quality shooting. Bottom line on the Warm Cards? I have no intention of ever again traveling to a shoot without them.
Steve Douglas is an underwater videographer and contributor to numerous film festivals around the world. A winner of the 1999 Pacific Coast Underwater Film Competition, 2003 IVIE competition, 2004 Los Angeles Underwater Photographic competition, and the prestigious 2005 International Beneath the Sea Film Competition, Steve has also worked on the feature film "The Deep Blue Sea", contributed footage to the Seaworld parks for their Atlantis production, and is one of the principal organizers of the San Diego UnderSea Film Exhibition. Steve leads both underwater filming expeditions and African safaris with upcoming filming excursions to Kenya, Bali, the Philippines, and the Red Sea. Feel free to contact him if you are interested in joining Steve on any of these trips. www.worldfilmsandtravel.com
Bob Gladden is a very accomplished diver, underwater photographer and filmmaker. An underwater photographer for 17 years, his work has been recognized with numerous awards, and has appeared in publications such as California Diving News, Discover Diving and Skin Diver. His films have been featured in local TV newscasts, TV specials and at numerous film festivals. http://ovisions.com
©Bob Gladden and Steve Douglas 2006
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